IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

To Change the World, Begin Building One That's Good for Children

Science and economics support the moral and civic duty of caring for our young from their earliest days.
Image: Singer Raffi Cavoukian
Human early learning is the stuff of wonder, but it is also the future of our species.Julie Winegard / for NBC News

We live in dangerous times, or so it feels.

It’s not just a feeling, though: More and more families struggle to make ends meet, and to find affordable childcare and health insurance. There’s a vengeful white supremacist in the White House, from which the daily news sounds surreal and bordering on chaos. And only stubborn deniers can ignore the reality of climate change and its intensifying super storms, melting glaciers and warming oceans.

Kids born today will face unprecedented global crises within their lifetimes, including the possible collapse of fisheries, accelerated mass extinctions, decimation of coral reefs and rising sea levels. No parent would choose for her kids to grow up on a "planet in peril" (as CNN called it).

Globally, humanity is living on the edge. Finding a remedy for our species is a matter of survival.

The key to seeing our survival dilemma clearly is realizing that the crises we face — personal, cultural, planetary — don't exist in isolation; they need to be addressed as a whole. Systems failure calls for systems renewal: seeing patterns, connecting the dots, focusing on the big picture.

Looking at our problems systemically, we can begin to conceive of how to transform the whole of society by conscious intention in a startlingly novel way: to design it with children in mind.

As Peter Senge, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asked, "Could this not be the single thought that steers us through the dangerous passage — a world that honors all its children?"

Many voices urge a systems shift to a caring and sustainable world, one that measures what really matters: honoring the young. From 1989’s UN's Convention On The Rights of The Child to 1992’s The Earth Charter, Riane Eisler's "caring society," Bill McDonough's "cradle to cradle design," Janine Benyus's "biomimicry" and David Korten's "Earth community," thought leaders in diverse sectors recognize that there is no path to sustainability that does not begin by insuring every child has an opportunity to thrive. And the integrated philosophy “Child Honoring” thus calls for a "compassion revolution.”

The child — as humanity's primary concern — deserves policy scrutiny. Across all cultures, infancy reveals the universal glory of human development. Every baby smiles and cries the same, eats and poops the same, and has the same physiological need (and capacity) for love — the prime nutrient — and what is universal to human experience is most evident in infancy.

Human early learning is the stuff of wonder, but it is also the future of our species. Neuroscience and the economics of early childhood development now support the moral and civic duty of caring for children; addressing newborns’ primary needs is in everyone's interest and can't be left to chance.

"We now understand how early child and brain development sets trajectories in the health, learning and behavior for life,” Dr Fraser Mustard wrote in "Early Years Study 2: Putting Science into Action." “How we apply this knowledge in our various societies will determine whether we will be successful in the 21st century.”

And, according to the UNICEF report “The child care transition: Innocenti Report Card 8,” “neuroscientific research is demonstrating that loving, stable, secure, and stimulating relationships with caregivers in the earliest months and years of life are critical for every aspect of a child’s development. "

Even the Rand Corporation, in its 2008 paper “What Does Economics Tell Us About Early Childhood Policy?”, noted the importance of childhood development for sustainable societies: "A growing body of program evaluations shows that early childhood programs have the potential to generate government savings that more than repay their costs and produce returns to society as a whole that outpace most public and private investments."

The individual and collective go together, like nature and nurture. Both grow from the conscious love — or lack thereof — that builds brains, relationships and belief systems in children.

So, as the child goes, so goes society. Thus, the question we need to ask is: Can we afford not to redesign it with the child in mind?

The left-right political spectrum cannot address human challenges that are neither conservative nor liberal. Societies’ systems must be designed to meet the priority needs of all of their children. A world that honors its children is both a unifying vision and a call to transform societal priorities. Focus on the start of life, because early experiences shape a lifetime of behavior.

In the words of Seattle pediatrician Dimitri Christakis: “When you change the beginning of the story, you change the whole story.”

Raffi Cavoukian is an award-winning singer, author, and founder of Child Honouring, an original philosophy. The Washington Post has described Raffi as “the most popular children’s singer in the English speaking world.” The recipient of numerous awards (including the Global 500 Roll), Raffi holds four honorary degrees and is a member of the Order Of Canada. He is founder and chair of the Centre For Child Honouring on Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada.